As a waitress led us into the dining room, the first thing we noticed was the open kitchen. The chef and three cooks, only a few feet away from our table, were mixing and chopping while rib-eye steaks sizzled on the grill. Smelling the aroma of roasted pork loins and sauteed onions ready to be plated, my friend and I immediately felt at home.
And that’s exactly the atmosphere that chefs Fred Sassen and Elizabeth Hopkins were going for when they opened Homestead at the beginning of August. They want to bring the diners into their restaurant the same way they invite guests over for dinner.
“We really want to completely knock those barriers down and let people see what’s going on back there,” Hopkins said. “You know, welcome them in. At our house, our kitchen is the dining room. We want to provide that setting.”
In addition to having an open kitchen, the owners of Homestead also try to express their concept of home on the menu, which boasted familiar dishes like gnocchi, ratatouille and roasted pork with cream corn.
“When we come up with food, we like to think about nostalgic dishes,” Sassen said. “Things that everybody ate at some point in their childhood.”
These nostalgic dishes are not tied to any specific cuisine. Hopkins, reflecting on her own mixed-race background, said that the United States has always been “a melting pot of people from all over the place.” Thus, the nostalgia served at Homestead is a harmonious combination of the chefs’ childhood memories, the Sunday suppers with Hopkins’ parents and memories of their trips overseas. You can start with ricotta and gnocchi, move on to salt-baked halibut with hollandaise and end with a pot of pu’er tea.
Homestead menus, like dinners at home, constantly change to capture seasonal products at their best. The restaurant’s ingredients are either homemade — such items include the ricotta, the cured meats and the vinegars — or sourced from local and sustainable providers. The fish and shrimp are caught wild, and the mushrooms are foraged.
“It’s all about using all of the extra energy to really push for the ingredients that you want to use, the quality that you want to use and the people that you want to support,” Hopkins said.
The concept of family also shows in the way the owners and their staff work together. If you don’t know Sassen and Hopkins, you wouldn’t recognize them as the owners. You would see Sassen making the sauces one moment and filleting a halibut the next, alongside a cook stirring a skillet of cream corn. Hopkins was expediting the orders, and minutes later I saw her prepping bean sprouts. Everyone was moving around, focusing on their job and taking care of everything that needed to be done. During our interview, Sassen said that the cooks are also not fixed to just one type of dish. Everyday during practice before the dinner service, the cooks can choose what they want to make that day and become proficient at it.
“In kitchens where the cooks get to do more, they stay because of that,” Sassen said. “We want to create an environment where my cooks bring in a lot of values to this business. We want them to take ownership of everything they do, and be proud and responsible for it.”
Both Sassen and Hopkins have many years of experience in the restaurant industry through serving as managers and chefs in the Bay Area. Three years ago, they decided it was time to open their first restaurant. What followed was an arduous process of finding a location, redesigning the restaurant and sorting through the legal paperwork.
“From nine months ago, when we signed the lease, it’s been totally difficult and completely out of my comfort zone,” Hopkins said. “I know nothing about construction, nothing about anything legal … it can be totally frustrating. But at the same time, you’re learning so much.”
Just two weeks after opening, Homestead was doing well. The down-to-earth menu and homey vibe seem to have resonated with diners — the 48-seat capacity is reached every night, with locals lined up outside.
Unlike many of their contemporaries, Hopkins and Sassen don’t think their food should always be “front and center”. The appeal of their restaurant lies in the guest experience: You’re not just dining with your companions; you can actually watch the chefs and interact with them. You can feel the heat from the brick oven. You can share the dining experience with the whole staff. The menus might not resemble home to me — I didn’t grow up on ricotta or cream corn — but the shared space with the kitchen and the staff made me feel at home. In the end, like a child waiting for her mom to finish cooking dinner, I can hardly wait to return to this lovely place.
Homestead is located at 4029 Piedmont Avenue, Oakland, CA 94611.
Mai Truong is the food editor. Contact her at [email protected]